Community College Offers Pathways to the American Dream

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by Dr. Kathleen Lee
Chancellor of Ivy Tech Central Indiana

Article was previously featured on WFYI’s “WFYI American Graduate Blog.

The American Dream holds different and very personal meanings for each of us, and the paths we take to achieve it are just as unique. For many, that path begins with community college. Despite what you may have heard, the flexibility and accessibility of community college—coupled with its inherently close relationships with local business—can offer a powerful launching point for many as they set off to find their own American Dream.

As Indiana’s only community college system, Ivy Tech offers two paths: one for students who want to prepare for an in-demand, high-paying job in two years or less; and one for students who want a smarter start to a bachelor’s degree. We have and always will be an engine of workforce development, training students in high-demand tech fields. But after half a century of evolution, Ivy Tech now offers more than 150 academic programs in fields like early childhood educationcyber security and aviation manufacturing.

On the accelerated path to the workforce, Ivy Tech alumnus Tre Robinson exemplifies how community college can lead directly into an in-demand, high-paying career. Knowing that a traditional four-year college path wasn’t an option for him in terms of time and finances, Tre took advantage of Ivy Tech’s Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP) to pursue a career in information technology. Through the accelerated program, he earned an associate degree in one year, and now works at Salesforce as a development automation engineer.

On the four-year transfer path, there’s Arnold Morales. A Honduras-born, first-generation college student, Arnold thrived at Ivy Tech. After an enriching two years in which he founded the Ivy Tech Engineering Society, sat onstage when President Obama visited campus to speak about middle-class economics and free community college, and represented his class as the commencement speaker in the spring of 2015, he transferred his credits to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where he is now a junior working toward a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

For students like Arnold and Tre, community college offers essential pathways to the American Dream that might not have otherwise been there. Decades from now, when their peers are still struggling to pay off their student loans, I would like to think these young men will look back on Ivy Tech as one of the smartest decisions they’ve ever made.

Arnold and Tre will be the first to tell you their experiences at community college were integral in achieving success. Yet, for many people in Indiana, the idea of community college and its role in higher education remains something of a mystery. Too often, Ivy Tech is perceived as it was 50 years ago—as a vocational/technical school with only a few specialized courses of study. Or worse, it is seen as a last resort for students who didn’t make the cut for the state’s larger four-year schools. A fallback.

That’s dangerous thinking. Without community college, students like Arnold and Tre might never be able to get a foothold on their paths to success. Many would be surprised to learn that more than a quarter of all Indiana high school graduates enrolling in public colleges choose to start their academic pursuits at Ivy Tech. With more than 170,000 students throughout the state, Ivy Tech is Indiana’s largest institution of higher learning and the largest community college network in the nation.

Considering the staggering levels of college debt this generation is faced with, thousands of enterprising students have discovered they can get a smarter start to their education at community college. Bachelor’s degree candidates who spend their first two years at Ivy Tech and then transfer to a four-year school can save upwards of $10,000 in tuition costs, meaning they could graduate with little or no student debt. Further, flexible scheduling at Ivy Tech’s 32 campuses and the ability to take more than 1,000 courses online make attending college a more attainable goal for many needing to balance work or family obligations.

As community leaders, we must renew our thinking about the role of community college as a critical access point that many of our family, friends, and neighbors need in order to enter into the world of higher education. By their nature, community colleges are able to build ties to local employers and are adaptable to workforce needs in ways other colleges and universities simply can’t be. Whether it’s a launching point to a higher education journey, wfyi-blog-2or a vital source of job skills, community college is uniquely positioned to help guide students toward their own American Dreams—one student at a time.

Kathleen Lee was named the Chancellor for the Central Region of Ivy Tech Community College in August 2012. The Central Region serves approximately 27,000 students annually from Marion, Hamilton, Boone, Hendricks, Morgan, Johnson, Putnam, Shelby and Hancock counties. She has served the College prior to her current role as Vice Chancellor of Academics and faculty member in Respiratory Care.

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